Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Warning: Here there be spoilers

I'm upset with Jon Katz.

I should have seen it coming, really. That I didn't is a testament to my natural stupidity, gullibility, or ability to place myself firmly within the safe borders of denial. Maybe it's because I read two other of his books before I read A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life. These two books gave no sign that Orson was anything but present and accounted for. After I finished A Good Dog, I checked the copyright dates on the other two. They'd been written before that one, of course.

So it was that my husband found me one morning last week in the bathtub (where I often repair with books), bearing a stricken expression. "What happened to Orson?" he asked frantically. I had been reading him some of the more hilarious bits and pieces of the book about Katz's unhinged border collie, and he'd become invested in the story.

"He's started to bite people," I said quietly.

How had I been caught off guard? Looking back, there was an undercurrent of sadness to Katz's writing style that didn't seem present in his other book I'd just finished. And then there was the blip from the critic on the jacket which called A Good Dog a "heartbreaking memoir."

Yet I remained resolutely clueless. So the ending hit me like the T-bone collision in those horrible Volkswagen commercials that occurs while the car's occupants are blissfully blathering on about nothing.

I'm not upset with Katz for making the agonizing choice to euthanize his beloved dog that had become dangerous to people and, by extension, every other dog. I wanted to be enraged at him for it, but I couldn't. Having read as much as I did about Orson and Katz, and their relationship, I couldn't see a way out of the decision he made.*

But he'd made me love that dog. As he brought me along on his journey from an unfulfilled life in a northern New Jersey suburb to his 40-acre farm in upstate New York, I became drawn to the troubled yet undeniably charismatic Orson. And so for the last twenty pages of the book, when I finally saw the end coming, I sat in the bathtub, weeping. On the rare occasion when a book or film cracks through my emotional exoskeleton, the most that ever slips out is a few quiet, nearly indiscernible tears. But reading about the end of Orson's life, I was set upon by great, gulping, noisy sobs that I couldn't seem to stop. Writing about it days afterward, I can feel my eyes burning again.

Perhaps unresolved grief from the death of my own ten-year old dog last summer has seeped in and blended with the sorrow for Katz and Orson, I don't know. More likely, it's simply that their story really is just that wrenching.

At it's core, A Good Dog is a story about human transformation. In all his other writings, Katz steadfastly maintains a hard rationality, a relentlessly logical worldview. But by the end of the book, the skeptic is consulting shamans (while ridiculing himself for it), animal communicators, and holistic veterinarians with acupuncture needles -- all for the love of this "rescue" dog that actually rescued him. By the end, Katz seems to have accepted the existence of a realm that isn't amenable to hardheaded reason. He seems to understand there are things we cannot see and do not know, and that the worship of reason can be just another form of fundamentalism.

I love Katz's work, but I've wondered a number of times whether we'd get along if we knew each other in person. My initial suspicion is that we're too much alike. He speaks of rage and intolerance always simmering just below the surface, a troubled family of origin, and lingering pain. I know all these things well. I can see in Katz's own personal evolution work that I deeply need to undertake as well -- have started already to undertake -- for the sake of children, spouse, dogs and ultimately, myself.

But I don't think it's merely this that draws me to his work. Hardy and grizzled roosters named Winston, affectionate steers called Elvis, and fascinating border collies like his Rose are also an irresistible draw. Perhaps I couldn't have one without the other. But I always enjoy visiting Katz's Bedlam Farm, if only through his words.

*A brief skimming of the Amazon reader reviews uncovers a group of folks who vehemently disagree with me on that point. That's a discussion for a post all its own, but for now let it suffice to say I tend to agree with Katz's views on biting dogs. I'd also note that for all their protests and aspersions on Katz as a human being and dog owner, few offer realistic solutions for the problem other than to state that what Katz did was horrible, wrong, and generally evil. I do wonder if many of these people aren't feeling the same thing I did -- a sense of betrayal and deep unease about being led to fall in love with this dog and then lose him in a terrible way -- and are really reacting to that. I don't know. Time and perspective may change my view of Katz, his work, and his decisions.


fakir005 said...

I won't say if your husband was cruel because if the dog had become dangerous he did a good things. But I don't thing you should dwell on the dog if you want to save the nmarriage. But I hope he does not start doing to human
beings what he did to the dog. As I understand it he killed the dog. If I understand it correctly and starts euthanizing humans that would be bad. But let us hope for your sake that your husband is better behaved towards humans. I've no reason to believe otherweise.

Trailhead said...

Interestingly, I'm not married to Jon Katz. And I seriously doubt my actual husband will begin euthanizing humans -- or Jon Katz, for that matter.

JLB said...

ahem... (the above comment was rather unexpected. wow.)...

Anyways, I was interested in your review because I'd read about the book at an online newspaper a while back (I was sure it was the NYT, but I can't seem to find it now).

I haven't read the book yet myself, but I can only respect a writer who is willing to share the ugly truth of growth, transformation, mistakes, and moving on that we all encounter in our lives.

By the by, I too often wonder about how well I'd get along with authors whose work I admire... I'm pretty sure that 9 times out of 10, we'd probably each go running for the exit.

Trailhead said...

I can only respect a writer who is willing to share the ugly truth of growth, transformation, mistakes, and moving on that we all encounter in our lives.

Jon Katz has that in spades. Despite the pain of reading A Good Dog, I become ever more attached to his work. I'm reading the last 10 pages of The Dogs of Bedlam Farm at a ridiculously slow pace, because I just don't want it to be over.